Government decision on Cuadrilla’s fracking exposes the cracks in the localism agenda

On paper, localism seems a fantastic, democratic ideal.  The Localism Act of 2011 aimed to facilitate the devolution of decision-making powers from central government control to individuals and communities.  At the time this was heralded by politicians, particularly in the planning sphere, as a way for people to ‘take back control’ over their local communities; tools such as Neighbourhood Plans would be a way to ‘defend’ towns and villages against unwanted development.  All good stuff, except time and time again we see examples of where localism in incompatible with wider regional requirements or national imperatives. 

The recent decision by the Government to overrule Lancashire County Council’s decision not to allow Cuadrilla to start fracking on their site at Roseacre has brought this to the fore.  The Government has decided that in order to provide us with energy security, fracking (and nuclear power at Hinckley Point) is going to be necessary, with Sajid Javid pointing out that the Cuadrilla site has “the potential to power economic growth, support 64,000 jobs, and provide a new domestic energy source, making us less reliant on imports.”.  Whether they are right or wrong, their decision is clearly incompatible with the concept of localism.  In housing, we see time and time again local communities seeking to oppose further development in their area, being overruled by the Planning Inspectorate on issues like a lack of 5-year housing supply.

Working with communities and developers in the industry since 2008 has given me an interesting and increasingly sceptical viewpoint on localism.  I have a suspicion it was something dreamed up by politicians as a neat line in various election campaigns and was certainly interpreted as a saviour by many communities who felt they were being overwhelmed by new development without sufficient infrastructure or other benefits being delivered alongside.  At the time it was launched, politicians tried to square the circle by claiming that tools such as Neighbourhood Plans would ‘enable’ development, but this certainly wasn’t the message coming through on the ground and indeed there are many examples to show that localism in itself doesn’t deliver development in this way.  Very few local communities or councils are going to offer to be the ones who take major energy infrastructure, or a new town, or a vast waste management site – these types of development are fraught with controversy and politically tricky to deliver.  The net result is imposition of these things by government, their Planning Inspectorate and potentially a greater use of CPO powers – surely all of which is contrary to the concept of localism.

I would be delighted to see some political leaders grasping the nettle and having a grown up conversation with the electorate about our responsibilities to the wider community.  Yes of course we would all rather not have our views spoiled by new development, but people have to live somewhere and the NIMBY response of “yes I agree but they shouldn’t be here” doesn’t wash.  Similarly, we all want our lights to work when we switch them on so we all have to take some share of the burden in how we get our electricity, be it wind or solar farms, fracking or nuclear power.  Localism has let a genie out of the bottle – a promise to local communities that they can determine their own futures.  It is hard to see how a government of any colour can row back from localism, but unless someone is prepared to start some tough conversations, we can expect the Cuadrilla decision to be the first of many to disappoint and disillusion those who were placing their faith in the localism agenda.

This article was written by Anna Sabine-Newlyn, Chief Executive at MPC.